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South Carolina Doubles Down on 2014

A Commentary By Geoffrey Skelley

Saturday, December 15, 2012

When Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) unexpectedly announced that he planned to resign his seat in early 2013 to become president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, he set in motion an odd American political occurrence: the double-barreled Senate election. This is when there is both a Senate special election and a regularly-scheduled Senate election held on the same day in the same state. In 2014, South Carolina will have a special election for the rest of DeMint's term at the same time Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) is up for reelection.

The 2014 double-barreled Senate elections in South Carolina will be the 49th pair of regularly-scheduled and special elections for a state’s two Senate seats in November since popular elections for the Senate began (and the third in South Carolina). Below is a chart listing all of those elections.

Chart 1: Double-barreled Senate elections in November

Sabato South Carolina - December 15, 2012

Sources: Guide to U.S. Elections, CQ Press; Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

Notes: An (i) denotes an incumbent; * denotes an appointee who won the general election; † denotes a candidate who defeated an appointee in the general election; and ‡ denotes a candidate who defeated an appointee for the party nomination and then won the general election. Special elections included in this list are ones that took place in November and were to finish out a Senate term extending into the next Congress. This list does not include special elections to fill out the remaining time in the current Congress.

In what may be a good sign for whomever Haley picks for DeMint’s seat, 18 of the 49 special elections in the chart have featured appointees who successfully held onto their seats; in only four cases did an appointee lose in November. But the greater challenge seems to be surviving to Election Day: There were six instances where the general election winner defeated an appointee for the party nomination en route to taking office. In most of the 21 other cases, either the appointee did not seek election or no one was appointed to the vacancy before the special election.

Scattered among these concurrent elections are some interesting historical tidbits. For example, early 1950s Connecticut saw some unusual senatorial circumstances. In 1950, Sen. Brien McMahon (D) won reelection while appointed Sen. William Benton (D) barely defeated challenger Prescott Bush (R) by 1,112 votes in the concurrent special election for the state’s other seat. Benton’s seat was due up for reelection in 1952, and Republican William Purtnell challenged him. But then McMahon, the other senator, died in July 1952. Connecticut Gov. John Lodge (R) appointed Purtnell to finish out McMahon’s time in the Senate, creating the odd circumstance where two sitting senators were running against each other for the same seat (Purtnell defeated Benton). Meanwhile, Bush -- the father of former President George H.W. Bush -- returned to run (and win) in the special to finish up the remainder of McMahon’s term beyond 1952.

Like Connecticut, Nebraska senate offices in Washington were in a constant state of flux around this same time period. The Cornhusker State actually had nine senators between 1951 and 1955 due to deaths, appointments and special elections. In 1952, there was a double-barrel situation due to the death of Senate Minority Leader Kenneth Wherry (R). The appointee to replace Wherry did not run to fill the vacancy; Dwight Griswold (R) won the special for the seat (which would be up for its normal election in 1954) while incumbent Sen. Hugh Butler (R) won reelection. But death struck again in 1954, twice this time: Griswold passed away on April 12 and Butler died on July 1. Thus in 1954, there was a double-barrel: a special election for Butler’s seat and the regularly scheduled election for Griswold’s seat. But both the appointees to replace Griswold and Butler chose not to run for the seats. In November, Roman Hruska won the special election while Carl Curtis earned the new term for Griswold's seat. Unmentioned in the chart, there was also a special election to replace the appointee for Griswold’s seat until Curtis was seated in 1955. Needless to say, election officials in Nebraska were probably exhausted by this time.

Meanwhile in the Palmetto State, incumbent Sen. Burnet Maybank (D-SC) won renomination in 1954 for November. But he died only two months before the election, prompting state Democrats to replace Maybank on the ballot with Edgar Brown. Former 1948 Dixiecrat presidential nominee and former Gov. Strom Thurmond mounted a spectacular write-in campaign built on anger at the state party for deciding a nominee sans primary, and Thurmond smashed Brown by 26% in November. Part of Thurmond’s 1954 campaign promise had been, if elected, to resign in 1956 to run in the Democratic primary. In 1956 (which is on the chart), Thurmond was unopposed in both the special primary and special general election, coinciding with incumbent Sen. Olin Johnston's (D) reelection win for South Carolina’s other seat.

Up until 1966, there were a large number of these dual elections. In fact, there was at least one double-barreled Senate election every cycle between 1926 and 1966. From then until 1992, there was only one. Since 1992, there have been clusters of concurrent elections in the 1990s and in recent years. While there were none in 2012, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) won a special election in 2010 to cement her succession to Hillary Clinton’s seat while Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) was earning another term. Mississippi and Wyoming also had two Senate elections in November 2008.

Back in the present, South Carolina’s dual election is prompting plenty of political maneuvering for 2014. Some observers initially thought that Gov. Nikki Haley (R) might simply appoint a caretaker or placeholder who would hold the seat until a new Senator is popularly elected in a 2014 special election. But on Monday, Haley dispelled that notion, opening the door for whomever is appointed to run in 2014 to complete the entire term (which will be up for its normal election in 2016). Her short list for the position apparently features just five names: Reps. Trey Gowdy and Tim Scott, former state Attorney General Henry McMaster, former South Carolina First Lady Jenny Sanford and Catherine Templeton, who heads the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who was widely reported as interested in running for the Senate, announced on Wednesday that he would not run against any of his House colleagues or Sen. Graham in a GOP Senate primary. But Mulvaney did not rule out a run if someone besides a fellow House member is picked for the soon-to-be vacant seat.

As we discussed in our early 2014 Senate outlook piece two weeks ago, Graham may be vulnerable to a primary challenge from his right. Depending on who Haley appoints to the open seat, Gowdy, Scott or someone else might choose to take on Graham. The situation obviously remains foggy, though it's not like Graham will be caught unawares: He recently told The Hill that he anticipates primary opposition. But there is one upside for Graham -- now that DeMint is on his way out, Graham’s position as the senior senator from South Carolina becomes even more important in the seniority-conscious Senate. He will certainly make that argument in the event that he does receive a primary challenge. Besides possibly impacting Graham's race, two other factors may play into Haley’s appointment decision: First, she has a gubernatorial election in 2014 and some intraparty factional strife to overcome in South Carolina. And second, she herself may have designs on one of these Senate seats at some point in the future.

In November 2014, the odds are that conservative South Carolina will be electing two Republicans to the U.S. Senate (even if their identities are as yet unclear). But if a Democrat somehow won one of the seats, it would be only the eighth time in 49 double-barreled Senate elections that voters picked winners from two different parties.

Geoffrey Skelley is a political analyst for Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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